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Dutch Impressions: Traditions – The Whole Sinterklaas Thingie..

Written By: frenchy on December 2, 2007 7 Comments

The Tradition
In the month of December the Dutch celebrate a very old tradition: Sinterklaas.
Now, the culturally correct description of the whole Sinterklaas thing can be read here. But I thought it’d be nice if I added some of my own flavor..

A short summary
Sinterklaas is a catholic bishop (originally from Turkey) who visits the Netherlands from Spain on a yearly basis to bring gifts for deserving children. Deserving meaning Good, undeserving meaning Bad, and kids in the latter category are put in sacks for a return trip to the Iberian land. This Sinterklaas guy has a group of assistants, helping him out with the distribution of the gifts, the candy and sack-handling of the kids (yes, these words are put in that particular order, deal with it..) These assistants are called Zwarte Piet or Black Pete and as you may have guessed are of African/Morish descent.

Sinterklaas’ original itinary
- arrival in Holland somewhere halfway November by ship: a nationally televised event.
- December 5th: S’klaas creeps across rooftops distributing presents to the children; also the evening of unpacking S’klaas gifts
- December 6th: actual birthday of S’klaas

December 5th is the national Dutch evening of social coherence. The majority of people rush back home from work to go and celebrate the Sinterklaas happening with the family and/or friends. Can’t/won’t describe the whole setup of such an evening but I can tell you that most of the time people sit together to unpack all the gifts; in my case during my years as a student I can remember a lot of gluhwein, but that’s a totally different and banished tradition.

On Curaçao
As kid I was into the whole S’klaas thing. It was also celebrated at school and that’s were things kinda got screwy for me. The school I attended had a lot of middle class Dutch kids and I remember the celebration on the schoolyard where I’d encounter some of those Dutch kids dressed up as Zwarte Piet… White people putting on shoeshine is always a disturbing sight, even if you’re a seven-year old black kid.
As in Holland, you had many different S’klaas parties you could go to. This meant that S’klaas had the magic property of being at all the different locations at the same time! Or, more logically, you accept the logic of assistant-S’klaases: they’re there at the parties, but the real S’klaas is in charge of the whole distribution of the gifts. This also meant that sometimes on Curaçao you’d be at a party where the S’klaas was a black guy and that too kinda messed with the mind.

Zwarte Piet
Ooooooh, every friggin’ year the Dutch are confronted with the Zwarte Piet issue: is it still okay to portray black people in that way? As assistants/lackeys (but not, heaven forbid, slaves) of the white man in charge? Still okay to use black people as a way of scaring children into Good behaviour? Etc.
Here’s David Sedaris‘ take on the whole thing from an outsider’s perspective.

Please take note: the Dutch are the formal owners of the term political correctness (by a UN decree, somewhere after the Indonesian Situation); they’ve embedded it in their culture before anybody had even thought of the term.
A coupla years back, this resulted in the introduction of Rainbow Petes (now THAT’s a cool cowboy name) in different colors just to refrain from insulting people’s sensitivities while further strengthening the negative association with the ‘color’ black. Another creative one was that the Petes would be messy from going down the chimneys, but that wouldn’t work if you put the Rainbow Pete at work in a chimney, right?
So this discussion keeps on going ad nauseum, damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

But there are those who rebel against all this moral soul-searching claiming cultural tradition as defense, not wanting to do anything about the issue and tired of defending themselves and their beautiful tradition. Fine by me, I just wish I had my own cultural tradition where I can portray white people as my lackeys and use that tradition as my defense. Hey, I can use their own traditions against them: have you ever seen Dutch people during carnival? Funny.. But not nearly enough compensation.

My own opinion? I’m a very lazy bastard: as long as you don’t get me agitated, you’ll probably survive. Dutch people ask me if I’m offended by this issue and that’s what really gets me irritated: I’m not here to help you ease your mind about this shituation. Nor am I here to start complaining about this every fucking year. You don’t need my approval. You can keep your tradition for your kids, but don’t expect me to like it and don’t ever expect me to act as if I like or accept it.
To quote the great poet: Homey don’t play that..

Back On Curaçao
The whole S’klaas arrival by steam boat also happened on Curaçao, while everybody just knew that he’d arrived in Holland at the same time!! That, combined with the fact that there seemed to be more than one S’klaas (and in more than one color) and the white kids painted in black, prompted me to ask my dad for some explanation.
He looked at me, an 8-year old with a 60-year old frown, and told me that S’klaas didn’t exist and that we’d be celebrating Santa next year.

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7 Responses to “Dutch Impressions: Traditions – The Whole Sinterklaas Thingie..”

  1. Evelyn said:

    I had no idea about this tradition until recently. Have to say I was shocked about the whole Black Pete thing, but then I’m coming at it with a North American perspective. Birth Of A Nation and Al Jolson dance in my head. It’s really not for me to comment on how things go down in your nation, it does make me feel shocked. I can’t be snobby about how North America is soooo progressive in political correctness because we are still dealing with who can say the N-word and the daily minstrel shows that can be seen daily on national TV. Very interesting discourse though Frenchy. Big ups!

  2. frenchy said:

    thanks, evelyn!
    it’s a tough subject to write about..

  3. janicever said:

    Hello.. seems that Santa has a lot of names around the world. I love Netherlands all because my heart is there though i haven’t been there! I’d love to see your country someday, especially Curacao! I am trying to learn about your nation and your people, your tradition and cultures so as to understand my special someone who is from there. More power and thanks!

  4. frenchy said:

    Hi there.
    The Netherlands sure is a fun and funny place to experience!
    The Dutch aren’t so different from other countries on the weirdness scale, it’s just the fact that they like to think of themselves as a collective of individuals. And such a nice contradiction makes them/us fun to behold ;)
    Hope you like the place and the great island of Curacao.

  5. azizi said:

    Greetings! I found this article by way of this post http://www.racialicious.com/2010/10/01/understanding-autochtoon-privilege/

    With regard to S’klass and Black Pete, as an African American I’m glad that at least we didn’t have that custom to deal with. For what it’s worth, by at least the 1990s in the USA, one could occassionally find Black Santa Clauses at department stores, and at church gatherings and other gatherings. But I think that most American children still consider Santa Claus to be White. I recall at Christmas program a little girl saying that that Santa Claus wasn’t the “real” one, because he was Black. Also, it seems to me that if none of the Rainbow Petes were White, then that reinforces the view that people of other “colors” were subservient to a person who is White. Yes, I know this is only a custom, but as an African American I bear witness to the harmful effects of the drip, drip, drip of White racism/White privilege that is embedded in cultural traditions.

    Frenchy, I note that you wrote that in the Netherlands’ tradition, December 5th was when gifts were exchanged, and that December 6th was the birth of S’klass. In the USA, exchanging & receiving gifts (usually on December 25th) is at least somewhat associated with the birth of Jesus and Jesus receiving gifts from the “wise men who traveled from the East”. Is Dec 25th part of the Christian tradition in the Netherlands?

    Please excuse my ignorance about the Netherlands and Curacao. Thanks for adding to my education about these cultures!

  6. Frenchy’s Fracas » Blog Archive » My Comment On A Post: Understanding Autochtoon Privilege said:

    [...] zwarte piet/black pete thing? Read my post about ithere (no spam or ads, don’t [...]

  7. frenchy said:

    Hi Azizi,
    Thanks for your comments.
    The Dutch primarily celebrate Sinterklaas as the main gift-giving holiday, and kept Christmas as the Christian holiday celebration without gifts. The last twenty years, things have changed a bit, so now people mix it up a bit: giving gifts on both days or just on the Sinterklaas or Santa Clause celebration.
    Imagine being a kid with a birthday in December, if you’re very, very lucky, you get up to three days of gifts!
    But that’s very unlikely, heheh..

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